The 30 Best Trips of 2015
Don't plan any vacations before reading this year's Best of Travel winners.
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Warning: unless you’re an annoyingly carefree bon vivant with a hefty trust fund, reading our annual Best of Travel awards may trigger a deep sense of dissatisfaction with the pathetic state of your mundane life. There are so many cool places to go, you’ll think as you scroll through our 30 epic selections. And not enough time! Why am I stuck at this desk! Do not panic—this is a totally natural reaction. And that’s the beauty of our annual awards.
Outside has been covering the adventure-travel beat for nearly four decades, and our two veteran Best of Travel writers, Tim Neville and Stephanie Pearson, have spent months poring over the latest trip offerings and scouring the globe to uncover surprising new ideas. We know this beat, and now we’ve narrowed your choices of hotels, destinations, and outfitters from approximately 10.6 million to 30. The final choice is still on you, but the task is at least manageable. Or maybe you’ll get that trust fund. —Chris Keyes
1. Best Island: Bermuda
A subtropical archipelago of 181 volcanic islands, Bermuda won the bid to host the 2017 America’s Cup, thanks to near perfect North Atlantic sailing conditions. Beyond wind, the British Overseas Territory, just a two-hour flight from New York City, has 75 miles of pink-sand beaches interspersed with jagged limestone cliffs, many of which are perfect for deep-water soloing and hucking into the Atlantic from the top. Stay at Elbow Beach, a 50-acre hideaway with a private stretch of sand on the southern shore (from $455).
2. Best Dive: Cuba
Already sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department as an educational tour, this 11-day live-aboard yacht excursion helps fund research and conservation work by trip leader David Guggenheim, a marine scientist, underwater explorer, and founder of the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Ocean Doctor. The location: Gardens of the Queen National Park, an archipelago of 250 coral and mangrove islands, located 60 miles off Cuba’s southern coast, that Fidel Castro established as a marine protected area and a no-take fishing zone. Only 1,000 divers are allowed each year, so you’ll be one of the few to see whale sharks, sperm whales, sea turtles, goliath groupers, and some of the most pristine coral reefs anywhere on the planet. The package includes a chartered flight from Miami and a night at the five-star Hotel Parque Central in Havana. From $7,474.
3. Best Street Food: Austin, Texas
The scene here is so fast-paced that today’s sweet chile chicken lollipops at Tommy Want Wingy or kimchi fries at the Korean-Mexican fusion truck Chi’Lantro may be gone tomorrow. (Though we sure hope not.) Hit eight trucks in one location at the Barton Springs Picnic Park, and find more worth seeking out at AustinFoodCarts.com and FoodTrailersAustin.com.
4. Best River Trip: Fiji
Lined with vertical cliffs and cascading waterfalls, the 18-mile-long Upper Navua River Gorge on Viti Levu is like a tropical Grand Canyon, which is why OARS formed Rivers Fiji and worked with local landowners, villagers, a timber company, and the Native Land Trust Board to establish the 10.5-mile Upper Navua Conservation Area in 2000. Bask in the fruits of their labor by paddling this pristine Class II–III warm-water river lined with swaying palms. As long as you’re here, add a couple of days kayaking the Middle Navua, sea-kayaking and snorkeling among the coral gardens of Beqa Lagoon, and sprawling out on white-sand beaches. $2,899 for eight days.
5. Best of the Wild West: Montana
Since 2001, the nonprofit American Prairie Reserve has been working to restore the northern great plains to the pristine condition Lewis and Clark found them in more than 200 years ago. The resulting reserve, in northeast Montana, is now 305,000 acres. The aim is to reach 3.5 million by 2030, creating a U.S. Serengeti and the largest wildlife park in the lower 48, where herds of elk, mule deer, and bison thrive. But don’t wait to go. You can sleep under the stars now at the 11-site Buffalo Camp ($10), four miles north of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, and take a DIY mountain-biking safari on old ranch roads, passing grazing bison and scanning the skies for American kestrels, Sprague’s pipits, and Swainson’s hawks. Or paddle the Missouri River past pioneer homesteads and historic tepees to Kestrel Camp, a set of five luxurious yurts, each with AC, a hot shower, and a veranda for sundowners (from $4,800 for six days).
6. Best Place to Tie One On: Portland, Maine
The other Portland may have the microbrewery rep, but it distributes its beers to half the country. Many of the best brews in Portland, Maine, can only be quaffed here. Oxbow, a classic American farmhouse brewery, just opened a tasting room downtown where you can try local favorite Space Cowboy, a low-alcohol ale, and full-flavor European-style beers like the Continental. Then head to Novare Res, one of the country’s best beer bars, with 33 rotating taps, including roughly ten Maine brews. Or join Summer Feet Cycling, which offers two-and-a-half-hour tours along the Old Port area, with stops at distilleries and breweries like Rising Tide and Urban Farm Fermenting (from $59).
7. Best Splurge: Greenland
Natural Habitat Adventures’ brand-new eco base camp, with high-thread-count linens, hot showers, and a gourmet chef, is as close to a luxurious safari-style camp as you can get in these parts. Set on Sermilik Fjord at the edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet, one of the least explored regions of the Arctic, the camp is within view of 5,000-foot peaks that plunge into the sea. Why pay top dollar to sleep in polar bear country in temperatures that barely hit the fifties in August? Because as Olaf Malver, the Danish camp founder who has spent 26 years exploring this coastline, says, “You will be dazzled by its dizzying beauty, strength, and simmering silence.” Guests can take guided ten-mile hikes through tundras, kayak among humpback whales, and visit Inuit villagers who live by centuries-old traditions. From $8,995 for nine days.
8. Best Way to Get Strong Quads: San Juan Mountains, Colorado
Elevation, elevation, elevation. That’s what I recall about the seven-day hut-to-hut mountain-biking trip through the San Juans, from Durango, Colorado, to Moab, Utah. Much as I want to write about the towering vistas and cascading ribbons of singletrack, you have to reach them first, and my memory of the 200-plus-mile ride is the 25,000 feet of elevation gain. The pain is worth it, with climbs ending at huts with glorious views. Note that these aren’t your gorgeous, timber-pegged cabins—they’re two-by-four-and-particle-board huts, hauled up on trailer frames. But you’re not here for raclette and a hot-stone massage; you’re just happy that you don’t have to carry your own food, water, and shelter. The cabins are well stocked, including cold beer and a warm sleeping bag on a soft pad. A couple of suggestions: carry the hut system’s maps; where it says singletrack option, take it; and read the log books (some of the comments are hysterical). When you get to Geyser Pass Hut at the end of day six, start smiling, because you’re at the top of the La Sal Mountains, and a 7,400-foot descent, aptly named the Whole Enchilada, awaits. As do the Colorado River, Moab, and a Milt’s malted and cheeseburger.
9. Best New Jaw-Dropping Hotel: Alila Jabal Akhdar, Oman
Oman is one of the most peaceful and stunning nations in the Middle East. Start your exploration of the vast Arabian Peninsula at this luxurious oasis amid date, peach, and pomegranate trees, perched at 6,500 feet on the edge of a deep gorge in the Hajar Mountains. Ffrom $325.
10. Best International Adventure Hub: Chile
Running 2,610 miles north to south, Chile is the longest country in the world, and 80 percent of it is covered by mountains. With vast wild spaces like 650,000-acre Patagonia National Park (which opened to the public this year), pristine rivers with big trout, classic old-school ski areas, and pisco sours and damn good wine, it’s hard to go wrong. Consider these dream itineraries: (1) Fly into the capital city of Santiago, then work your way south to 370,000-acre Yendegaia National Park in Tierra del Fuego. The former cattle ranch opened in 2013, but very few people have been lucky enough to explore this swath of untouched glaciers and peaks. Be one of the first to take it all in on a 16-day boat-assisted hiking and sailing epic with Chile Nativo ($8,000). (2) Mid-country, two hours south of Santiago in the Millahue Valley, stay at the brand-new Viña Vik, a 22-room retreat and wine spa in the middle of an 11,000-acre vineyard with stunning views of the Andes (from $1,200). Mountain-bike the 65 miles of vineyard roads, then laze by the infinity pool. (3) Eleven hundred miles north in the Atacama Desert, explore the lunar landscape on horseback, relax poolside at the luxurious Tierra Atacama (from $1,350 for two nights, all-inclusive), then set out after dark to Ahlarkapin Observatory to view the universe through the clearest sky on earth.
11. Best SUP Odyssey: Belize
With the 180-mile-long Belize Barrier Reef, this laid-back country has long been a heaven for divers and snorkelers. It just got better with the world’s first lodge-to-lodge paddleboarding trip. On this guided adventure with Island Expeditions through Belize’s 118,000-acre Southwater Caye Marine Reserve, you’ll paddle four to eight miles per day through calm turquoise waters, jumping off to snorkel where spotted eagle rays and barracuda glide in reef areas too shallow for motorboats. You’ll visit with researchers at Smithsonian’s Carrie Bow Caye Field Station to learn about reef biology, stop for a beachside fresh-catch lunch at a Garifuna fishing camp, night-snorkel at Southwater Cut (a deep channel where the coral blooms after dark), and sleep in rustic overwater bungalows on tiny Tobacco Caye and in the seclusion of private Southwater Caye, 12 acres ringed by white sand in the Belize Barrier Reef. $1,829 for six days.
12. Best Place to Get in the Car and Go: India
Mention driving in India to veteran travelers and they’ll recount white-knuckle cab rides and six-hour traffic jams. But on a ten-day driving trip with Mercury Himalayan Explorations, you and a caravan of like-minded adventurers gain access to crowd-free luxury lodging and villages far from the tourist hordes. You’ll pilot a Mahindra Scorpio (an Indian four-wheel-drive SUV) up to 90 miles a day, charging through the dirt roads of the Himalayan foothills or over the sand dunes of Rajasthan. A mechanic will be right behind you for on-the-fly repairs. From $1,500 for ten days.
13. Best Beaches: South Carolina
The Palmetto State has over 200 miles of coastline and an ample supply of gorgeous beaches, with comfortable water temperatures from May through October. Start in Charleston and head 20 miles north to uninhabited Bulls Island, part of the stunning 66,000-acre Cape Romaine National Wildlife Refuge, for a hiking or kayaking tour with Coastal Expeditions (from $40). Farther north lies Pawleys Island and its laid-back beaches, and three miles north of there is our favorite stretch of the state: Litchfield Beach. The northern end is the protected Huntington Beach State Park. You won’t find any putt-putt here, just wide-open white sand for miles.
14. Best Small Cruise: Doubtful Sound, New Zealand
As my wife and I planned our South Island road trip, the big debate was: should we do an overnight cruise into Doubtful Sound on a 70-person, three-masted sailboat? We didn’t really think of ourselves as cruising types. Then we looked at pictures of Doubtful Sound, which seemed too stunning to be real: ridiculously lush forest clinging to sheer cliff walls, pods of dolphins, towering waterfalls. So we booked the trip with Real Journeys. While we did some unbelievably cool stuff while we were in New Zealand, including helicoptering into a swanky lodge in the Southern Alps, the defining moment came during a rainy afternoon on that boat. Temperatures were in the mid-forties, and we had just returned from a short sea-kayaking excursion, wet and cold. But when I saw a few of my fellow cruisers (who, it should be said, were mostly young and adventuresome) lining up to jump off the rear deck, I stripped down to my skivvies, climbed onto a platform, and launched into the scrotum-searingly cold water. And then I did it again. My wife looked at me like I’d lost my mind. And maybe I had, at least temporarily. From $310.—SAM MOULTON
15. Best Comeback Country: Sri Lanka
The first decade of the new millennium was rough on Sri Lanka, with a devastating cyclone, the tsunami, and a 26-year civil war that ended in 2009. Today, this largely Buddhist island in the northern Indian Ocean, with 8,000-foot peaks and 830 miles of coastline, has bounced back big time—foreign travel grew 19 percent in 2014. There’s no shortage of fun to be had at these base camps: Book a deluxe safari-style tent at Aliya Resort and Spa in the center of the country and hike to sacred rock Sigiriya (from $221). Cape Weligama, a brand-new clifftop hotel on 12 lush acres, 30 minutes east of the port city of Galle, hovers 100 feet over the Indian Ocean, with mountain biking, diving, and paddleboarding nearby (from $767). On the east coast, the village of Arugam Bay, sandwiched between miles of beaches and an inland tropical jungle, has consistent right breaks. Rent a beach cabana at the Stardust Beach Hotel (from $38). Twenty miles south is Yala National Park, with herds of elephants and solitary leopards.
16. Best Outfitted Trips: Anywhere with Wilderness Travel
This 37-year-old team in Berkeley, California, dreams up more than 30 unique trips across 75 countries every year and is known for pioneering adventures that other outfitters copy later—kayaking tours through remote stretches of Tierra del Fuego, the world’s highest trek (at 23,000 feet) across Tibet—and doing it all with an eye toward supporting locals and minimizing environmental impact. But what makes Wilderness Travel truly exceptional are the company’s trip developers and guides. Take Barbara Banks, a polyglot who’s spent 23 years with the company traveling hundreds of thousands of miles setting up local connections. (Norwegian ferry captains know her so well, they’ll make unscheduled stops to allow Wilderness Travel groups to disembark directly at their waterside hotel after a day of hiking fjords.) Some recent new trips: sea-kayaking and camping on isolated beaches in Palau, visiting little-seen pyramids in Sudan, and tracking desert lions in Namibia with Flip Stander, a Ph.D. who has spent decades living among the big cats.
17. Best Domestic Adventure Hub: North Carolina
Take California, make the mountains greener and the beaches and restaurants less crowded, and replace all the digital millionaires with hospitable southerners, and you get North Carolina. On the coast, you’ll find some of the East’s best breaks on the Outer Banks, and stand-up paddleboarders cruise through the 160,000-acre Croatan National Forest, filled with salt estuaries and flooded pines. In the west, there’s world-class singletrack and road riding in the Blue Ridge mountains (pros like local Matthew Busche of Trek Factory Racing train for the Tour de France here), 96 miles of Appalachian Trail, and some of the country’s best whitewater at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. That’s to say nothing of cities like Asheville, Wilmington, and Chapel Hill, which are full of farm-to-table restaurants, local breweries, and great music venues. Where to start your trip? Get a room at the two-year-old Aloft hotel in Asheville (from $159) and mountain-bike the Big Avery Loop, a challenging 13-mile romp through rhododendron tunnels and way-off-the-back rock steps. Or rent a house on the Outer Banks in the spring or fall and learn to surf with the folks at Real Watersports (from $100).
18. Best Base Camp: Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, Namibia
Yes, getting to Namibia involves at least a full day of travel, but the payoff is worth it: no other landscape is like the surreal Skeleton Coast, which was carved out of lava rock 130 million years ago. One excellent way to see it is via Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, a fly-in oasis that opened last August on the banks of the Hoanib River in one of Africa’s most extraordinary wildlife-viewing regions. Desert-adapted rhinos, elephants, and other charismatic megafauna like springbok (a gazelle) linger near the camp’s spacious, fire-warmed common area and eight luxury safari tents (think pitched canvas roofs, big decks, and twin-bed interiors). A small plane can drop you off near the shipwrecks and seal colonies at Mowe Bay. From $500.
19. Best Road Biking: California
The Golden State has 800 miles of coastline and half a dozen mountain ranges—and you can ride practically all of it year-round. From coastal tours like the supported eight-day, 525-mile California Coast Classic from San Francisco to Los Angeles, to foodie-friendly tours along the back roads of Sonoma (visit sonomacounty.com for routes, rentals, and outfitters), to epic climbs like the five passes and 15,000 feet of elevation gain through the Sierra Nevada during the annual Death Ride ($135), California has greater variety than just about anywhere. Get route maps online at the California Bicycle Coalition, or sign up with an outfitter like Pure Adventures. Its supported, self-directed six-day tours from Yosemite to San Francisco or through Death Valley National Park let you decide where to ride, sleep, and eat, but a leader in a van sets up snack stops and water refills and hauls your gear. It’s like an egoless, six-cylinder domestique ($1,495 for six days).
20. Best Place for a Meal in Ski Boots: Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico
After a morning spent charging Taos’s famously steep West Basin chutes, there’s no better place to refuel than the Bavarian Lodge’s festive outdoor deck. With its waitstaff in dirndls and lederhosen, German fare, and view of Kachina Peak, this ski-in, ski-out chalet is about as close to the Alps as you can get in the southern Rockies. I start with the soft-doughed pretzels and house-made sweet grain mustard. They’re the perfect warm-up for the goulash, bratwurst, or spaetzle (a German version of mac and cheese) and an Asam Bock, a beer on tap from Germany’s Weltenburg Monastery. On powder days, I often don’t end up at the Bavarian until dinner, which is served inside the log-built lodge, where you can still dunk bread in cheese on fondue Tuesdays during the winter. If I’m sleeping in one of the Bavarian’s four luxe suites, waking up to easy access to Taos’s new Kachina lift, which expands the mountain’s lift-served advanced terrain by 50 percent, is heaven. During summer, trails to Williams Lake and New Mexico’s highest peak—13,159-foot Wheeler—are right out your door.—Mary Turner
21. Best Urban Upgrade: Philadelphia
It may be better known for its cheesesteak, hoagies, and underdog sports teams, but lately the City of Brotherly Love has been gaining ground as an outdoor town. This year it’s launching a bike-share program and adding three miles of multi-use trails to its 220-mile citywide system. In 2014, it transformed 20,571 square feet of cemented wasteland into Dilworth Park. You can even do paddleboard yoga along the Delaware River with Aqua Vida (from $45).
22. Best Outfitted Trips for Families: Anywhere with Bicycle Adventures
Roughly 10 percent of Bicycle Adventures’ trips are now geared specifically toward families with preteens in tow. This year the Washington-based company launched three multi-day rides in Oregon, Idaho, and South Dakota that follow car-free bike paths and pass through kid-captivating areas like Mount Rushmore and Idaho’s Trail of the Hiawatha, with stops for ice cream, rafting, and swimming holes. Have younger kids? They’ll pedal tag-alongs hitched to adult bikes, and toddlers and infants can ride in provided trailers. From $2,295.
23. Best Place to Eat and Drink Yourself Silly: Scotland
A decade ago, when restaurants like Noma ushered in a Scandinavian culinary renaissance, a bunch of Scots headed north and took jobs in those kitchens. Now they’ve returned to make use of their homeland’s nearly 6,800 miles of coastline, abundant mushroom and strawberry harvests, and massive beef industry. Which is part of the reason the country named 2015 the Year of Food and Drink. Just about every town has at least one restaurant with a creative menu. To experience the best of it, go to the Three Chimneys, on the edge of Loch Dunvegan. Chef Michael Smith serves Sconser king scallops, Skye blackface lamb, and lobster from practically right out the door. And don’t forget to take in a Scotch distillery tour.
24. Best Places to Stretch Your Budget: Japan, Europe, and Brazil
With the economy bouncing back, the dollar is getting stronger—especially in these three destinations, where the exchange rate has steadily improved over the past 12 months.
Three nights at the ski-centric Furano Prince
- February 2014: $260
- February 2015: $220
One-week tour with Cycle Italia
- February 2014: $4,000
- February 2015: $3,395
Three nights in the Amazon at Pousada Uacari
- February 2014: $850
- February 2015: $750
25. Best Deal: Kolarbyn Hostel
These 12 huts, located about 80 miles west of Stockholm, are made from wood and earth (you can pick blueberries off the roof) and set you up in the middle of a spruce forest straight out of Endor. Spend your days napping, hiking, or paddling nearby waterways, and end them with a visit to the floating sauna on Skärsjön lake. $120.
26. Best Effort to Mitigate That Carbon Footprint: Indianapolis International Airport
Air travel is tough on the environment. So it’s nice when there are initiatives like the IND Solar Farm. Last year, workers more than doubled the number of solar panels at Indianapolis International Airport to 76,000—enough to power 3,210 homes for an entire year.
27. Best Safari: Kenya
Outside GO’s 11-day Ultimate Conservation Safari was put together by owners Sandy and Chip Cunningham, who lived in Kenya for five years, in response to a simple truth: Africa’s most worthwhile destinations are often some of its most vulnerable. You’ll visit three remarkable locations on the cutting edge of both conservation and accommodation in the wildest sections of East Africa. Take Campi Ya Kanzi, nestled in the shadow of Kilimanjaro, which has exclusive access to 300,000 acres of wilderness with lions, elephants, zebras, and giraffes, and not a single tourist in sight. You’ll be hosted by local Masai and sleep in a lavish tent without the humming generators that mar other properties—the camp gets 24-hour power from solar. The trip culminates in a visit to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s elephant orphanage, where young pachyderms that have lost their parents to poaching are fostered. You’ll get a once-in-a-lifetime, up-close look. From $9,585.
28. Best Viral-Video Opportunity: Bay of Fundy
Go with Seascape Kayak Tours on a sea kayak with pods of humpback whales in the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick. From $85.
29. Best Airbnb Property: Mary May’s
A morning spent at this carriage house outside Bozeman, Montana, presents a dilemma. Do you fire up the professional range, swing open the French doors, and have a leisurely breakfast? Do you head out and explore the property’s 100 acres of trails and trout waters? Or do you hop in the car for a quick trip to Yellowstone? There’s no easy answer, but few places let you experience as much for so little. $125.
30. Best Surf Trip: Baja, Mexico
There are lots of ways to enjoy Mexico. But I’ve found that the very best is to cross the border in a 4×4 truck with surfboards, a few extra tanks of gasoline, and a couple of bottles of mezcal. If you don’t count the border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali—and, frankly, you shouldn’t—the Baja peninsula has a population of just over two million spread across 55,000 square miles. That’s fewer people than Houston. The region’s 2,000 miles of wild and desolate Pacific coastline are littered with fantastic, almost always empty surf. Many of the most famous breaks—Quatros Casas, Scorpion Bay—now have hostels and other amenities on the bluffs, but the rule of thumb is that the farther you get from San Diego, the more challenging and rewarding it becomes. You get to work for your dinner: spear-caught fish for ceviche and a lobster as big as a small dog. Lodging options that far south are limited—we slept in tents or our truck bed—so if you go, remember that when the wind starts whipping and the night gets cold, dead yuccas burn hotter than tumbleweeds.